United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM OPINION ON MOTIONS TO AMEND JUDGMENT AND
ALTERNATIVELY FOR A NEW TRIAL (DOCS. 644, 646, &
WILLIAM I. ARBUCKLE U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE
ALLEGATIONS OF ERROR
jury charge “wrongful conduct of Defendant makes damage
calculation difficult.” ............................ 5
Non-economic damages for humiliation and pain and suffering,
where there was no evidence of physical injury or impact. .
Permitting Plaintiff to testify as to the value of the
contents of the safe. . ..... 16
Punitive Damages not supported by underlying claims and
violate the 14th Amendment.
of “security tape” call to cross exam Robert
Yoncuski. . ........................ 21
of “security tape” call as only basis for
liability of Vanessa Yoncuski. . 24
Damages for injuries incurred at the police station. ..
Defendants from the trial ending with a verdict on September
25, 2019 (Doc. 602) except Linda Long have filed Motions for
New Trial or in the Alternative to Amend the Judgment. The
Court may alter or amend a judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.
59(e), otherwise known as a motion for reconsideration.
See Keifer v. Reinhart Foodservices, LLC., 563
Fed.Appx. 112, 114 (3d Cir. 2014). “A motion under Rule
59(e) is a ‘device to relitigate the original
issue' decided by the district court, and used to allege
legal error.” United States v. Fiorelli, 337
F.3d 282, 288 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Smith v.
Evans, 853 F.2d 155, 158-159 (3d Cir. 1988)). However, a
Motion to Alter or Amend Judgment “must rely on one of
three major grounds: (1) an intervening change in controlling
law; (2) the availability of new evidence not available
previously; or (3) the need to correct clear error of law or
prevent manifest injustice.” North River Ins. Co.
v. CIGNA Reinsurance Co., 52 F.3d 1194, 1218(3d
Cir.1995). All moving Defendants rely on the third basis, the
need to correct clear error or prevent manifest injustice.
Adams Defendants seek an amended judgment and have alleged
three errors in the trial:
Honorable Court erred by giving the jury charge
"wrongful conduct of Defendant makes damage calculation
difficult", as the jury charge was improper and did not
provide the jury with a proper understanding of the law (Doc.
644, p. 2, ¶4A);
Honorable Court erred by allowing the jury to consider
awarding Plaintiff noneconomic damages for humiliation and
pain and suffering, where there was no evidence of physical
injury or impact, the same being contrary to precedent of the
Pennsylvania Supreme Court (Doc. 644, p. 2, ¶4B);
Honorable Court erred by denying Defendants' Motion in
Limine, and permitting Plaintiff to testify as to the value
of the contents of the safe, as the same should have been
barred by the doctrine of collateral estoppel (Doc. 644, p.
alternative they seek a new bifurcated trial (Doc. 644, p.
Robert and Vanessa Yoncuski assert the same three grounds for
error as the Adams (Doc. 646, p. 7, ¶¶a-c), and in
addition add the following four allegations of error:
D) The award of Punitive Damages violated the 14th Amendment
to the Constitution prohibition on excessive or arbitrary
punishment (Doc. 646, p. 7, ¶d);
E) This Honorable Court erred by allowing Defendant Robert
Yoncuski to be cross-examined concerning an audiotape of a
security call that was never disclosed, not listed as an
exhibit and the Court admitted that the Plaintiff was
“sandbagging” Defendant Yoncuski (Doc. 646, p. 7,
F) Defendant Vanessa Yoncuski is entitled to a new Trial on
liability and damages as the only possible basis of liability
was the aforementioned improperly admitted audio recording
(Doc. 646, p. 7, ¶f); and,
G) This Honorable Court erred by submitting to the jury the
issue of Plaintiff's alleged wage loss and emotional
damages for alleged injuries incurred at the police station.
(Doc. 646, p. 7, ¶g).
alternative they also seek a new trial (Doc. 646, p.7).
Thomas Yoncuski asserts as error:
A. The Court's denial of the Motion in Limine and
admission of testimony of the Plaintiff concerning the value
of her stolen jewelry on the basis of collateral estoppel
(Doc. 648, p.4, ¶11) [This assertion of error mirrors
argument “C” of the other Defendants];
B. The Court's charge instructing the jury that
“[t]he risk of uncertainty should be thrown upon the
wrongdoer instead of upon the injured” was misplaced as
the general rule of placing the burden of proof of the
measure of damages on the plaintiff applies to conversion
cases and the charge given to the jury did not, therefore,
properly apprise the jury of the applicable law (Doc. 648,
p.4, ¶13)[This argument mirrors argument A of the other
C. The Court's charge for non-economic damages and
preexisting condition or injury were not appropriate since
recovery for noneconomic damages and psychological injuries
were not connected with a physical injury (Doc. 648, p.5,
¶14). [This assertion of error mirrors argument
“B” of the other Defendants].
the other Defendants, Thomas Yoncuski seeks an amended
judgment or new trial. All three motions have been briefed
(Docs. 645, 647& 649) Plaintiff has filed a single
responsive brief (Doc. 659), and Thomas Yoncuski filed a
timely reply brief (Doc. 660). The motions are ripe for
decision. I will attempt to respond to each argument raised
by the motions seriatim.
ALLEGATIONS OF ERROR
JURY CHARGE “WRONGFUL CONDUCT OF DEFENDANT MAKES DAMAGE
Defendants argue that the Court's charge to the jury on
the issue of damages, mislead the jury and caused them to
misapply the burden of proof. In particular Moving Defendants
claim that charging the jury on the wrongful conduct of the
Defendants was error. Plaintiff's theory of the case was
that Defendants conspired to steal a safe from her home and
convert the contents. Defendants variously argued that either
they were not involved in the theft and concealment of the
safe or that all the contents were returned. Plaintiff
admitted that some of the contents were returned to her but
claimed much of what was returned was damaged.
Court's challenged instructions to the jury on the issue
of damages included the following language:
A defendant whose wrongful conduct has rendered difficult the
ascertainment of the precise damages suffered by the
plaintiff, is not entitled to complain that damages cannot be
measured with the same exactness and precision as would
otherwise be possible. It would be a perversion of
fundamental principles of justice to deny all relief to the
injured person, and thereby relieve the wrongdoer from making
any amend for his acts. In such case, while the damages may
not be determined by mere speculation or guess, it will be
enough if the evidence shows the extent of the damages as a
matter of just and reasonable inference, although the result
be only approximate. The wrongdoer is not entitled to
complain that damages cannot be measured with the exactness
and precision that would be possible if the case, which he
alone is responsible for making, were otherwise. The risk of
the uncertainty should be thrown upon the wrongdoer instead
of upon the injured party. The precise amount cannot be
ascertained by a fixed rule but must be matter of opinion and
(Doc. 604, pp. 23-24)
source for this portion of the charge was Judge Tech.
Servs., Inc. v. Clancy, 813 A.2d 879, 885-86 (Pa. Super.
2002) (internal citation omitted). The charge on wrongful
conduct is a correct statement of Pennsylvania law.
Importantly, that was not the only instruction on damages.
The jury was also instructed, more than once, that the burden
of proving her damages by a preponderance of the evidence was
on the Plaintiff. In addition the jury was instructed as
While the measure of damages for conversion is the market
value of the converted property at the time and place of
conversion, such a value is often unascertainable. It is also
well-settled that mere uncertainty as to the amount of
damages will not bar recovery where it is clear that the
damages are the result of defendant's conduct.
Please remember that damages cannot be based on mere
speculation or bias. You should not award damages because you
did not like a particular defendant, and you should not deny
damages if you did not like the plaintiff. You must decide
damages based on the evidence, not on any prejudice or bias
you may have about the conduct here or the parties involved
in this case. The purpose of damages involving lost or
damaged property is not to make Donna Deitrick wealthy or to
punish the ...